There are few things as disconcerting to a company as an unexpected succession gap in its C-suite. This holds true also for its in-house legal team. As recruiters, we see daily the pressures of finding replacements for in-house lawyers who are essential to their clients' business. Unfortunately, the General Counsel, who often is "putting out fires" and focused on other day-to-day and strategic business needs (e.g., sales, acquisitions or major lawsuits), may not dedicate the requisite time to succession planning. That should change. You want a succession plan, not succession panic.
Succession planning is essential both for the General Counsel role itself and for the broader legal team, particularly those performing critical support functions. Just as a valued General Counsel proactively counsels her clients to anticipate their business and legal needs, so, too, does she need to proactively structure her team to ensure the ongoing seamless servicing of the business when she or a member of her team transitions.
In undertaking succession planning, understand that these events can be triggered not just by retirement or voluntary transition but also by a restructuring, termination, death, disability or illness. The trigger may be unexpected, so plan ahead to minimize disruption to the business:
- Assess your client’s current business and legal needs and anticipate those that may arise tomorrow.
- Assess your internal team.
Prepare your internal candidate(s).
- Identify the skill and talent gaps of the members of your team in light of what is needed today and what may be needed tomorrow.
- Assess gaps in leadership skills, maturity and judgment—characteristics that are essential to stepping up to more senior roles.
- Determine what can be trained-up and what cannot.
- Allow for more than one candidate to be in the running to succeed a particular role.
- Provide these candidates opportunities to:
- Gain needed skills and exposure to businesses, products and geographic regions.
- Develop critical internal business relationships.
- Develop critical external relationships, including with key outside counsel, regulators and business partners.
- Provide these candidates opportunities to stretch and, yes, to fail—and learn. Failing in a project does not mean failing in succession. Consider this: Was good judgment demonstrated? Was a lesson learned? Was there growth?
- Consider whether and when to "publicly" identify a particular successor or to defer and let things play out over time. Even if deferring, you will want to consider whether to encourage or discourage a competitive aspect to the succession. Frankly, that depends, too, on the broader culture of the company. The tradeoff in anointing a successor weighs (i) the benefits of predictability and a focused succession and "grooming", against (ii) losing valuable talent when those not chosen feel slighted and may lose commitment or decide to exit.
- Keep tabs on the external talent market; you may want or need to access it. Maintain a relationship with a trusted external recruiter who is present in that market every day and can keep you informed on the talent pool and their competitive opportunities and expectations. A trusted recruiter can most comprehensively and confidentially benchmark talent to ensure your access to the highest performers in the market.
- As General Counsel, seek out your Human Resources team for guidance, as succession planning will not typically lie within your core expertise. Also, include succession planning in your own and your relevant team members' annual goals and performance reviews; this will make expectations clear and provide for metrics that are measured and met.
Succession planning is a critical component of good counseling and management that is too often ignored and lost in the day-to-day pressures of our legal jobs. It more closely aligns the General Counsel with the broader management team in underscoring her understanding of the broader strategic needs of the company and nurtures a well-rounded, well-trained, well-integrated legal team that provides the highest level of ongoing service to clients.